Re’eh: The Kabbalah of Duality


The challenge of bridging modernity and faith, which was exposed by the Emancipation, is based on the (mis)understanding of Divine unity, as discussed in my column “Orthodoxy Vs. the World.”The ideological root of this dilemma can be traced to a Kabbalistic argument about the very nature of existence.

To explain the possibility of our independent existence in the face of Divine omnipresence, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria), the great mystic of Tzfat, taught the mystery (sod) of the Tzimtzum. The Lurianic doctrine of Tzimtzum explains that existence is a result of Divine concealment. In the memorable words of the Arizal: “First the Divine infinite energy/light (ohr ein sof) filled all existence and there was no ‘room’ for the creation of finite worlds. Then came a Tzimtzum, which contracted and concealed the light, allowing “space” for our existence,” a reality that feels independent of its divine source.

A classic debate arose in attempting to understand the meaning of this Tzimtzum. Some interpreted the “Tzimtzum” literally (Tzimtzum k’peshuto), that the Divine actually “removed” Himself from our existence. They explained that this is the only way to reconcile our inferior realm with the Divine presence. G-d would be defiled were we to say that He is present within the “filth” of our universe. Instead, G-d’s presence and providence in this world is like a “king who watches the grime through a window” (an actual quote).

Others, however, felt that a literal application of the Tzimtzum is a misinterpretation of the Tzimtzum doctrine. Apart from the fact that a literal Tzimtzum would be applying corporeal phenomena to G-d, the literal “departure” of the Divine ultimately implies that the Divine presence cannot be found directly in our existence. This contradicts the fundamental principle of Divine unity, with the many verses that clearly describe G-d’s omnipresence within all of existence.

Instead, they interpret the Tzimtzum not literally (shelo k’peshuto). The Divine is not “removed” from existence; It is only concealed. Even though we cannot perceive His presence, the Divine is within every fiber of existence, sustaining it with a steady flow of renewed energy. Since the Divine is not bound by any properties – “physical,” or “spiritual” or any other – we cannot fully understand how the Divine can be present in “filth,” while not be “bound” and defined by it.

These two interpretations of the Tzimtzum are not merely academic or philosophical. Their implications are far reaching; their consequences profound.

According to the first opinion, which was held by some great mystics, the Divine can ultimately never be truly integrated into the material world and surely not in modern life. According to them the Divine is experienced by denying the world. Even when engaging secular life, there always remains a fundamental tension between the “inferior” finite universe and the “superior” infinite Divine. Inevitably, this leads to compartmentalization – the duality so aptly captured in Noah Feldman’s “Modern orthodox” experience, as discussed last week at length.

The second opinion, however, leads to an entirely different approach. The Divine is present everywhere all the time, in every micro-detail of time, space and soul. The mission of our lives is to reveal the Divine in every aspect of our daily activities, refining and spiritualizing the material, converting it into sacred fuel.

Evil must be denied, rejected and destroyed. But the universe itself is not evil. Neither are the people of the world. It is a state of concealed spirit. Even evil is the absence of good, which can take on a damaging life of its own through our choices and actions. When we choose to resist destructive temptation, or to “break” it and make amends once manifest, we reveal the inner good within the material universe – the Divine light that always remained dormant, waiting to be awakened by us.

This approach makes it very clear that total integration of matter and spirit, faith and the universe, is not only possible but necessary.

Ironically, at first glance, the former interpretation of the Tzimtzum would seem to give more credence to modernity. Since the Divine literally “departed” from this world, we are then left to a certain measure “on our own” when dealing with modern challenges. Yes, the “king is peering through the window,” but since the Divine immanence is literally “removed” from our corporeal beings, we are left with no recourse but to negotiate with the “rules” of society. The statement of our sages “when you come to a city follow its customs – “when in Rome do as the Romans do” – takes on the meaning that Noah Feldman described as “a Jew in the home and a man in the street.”

By contrast, the opinion that the Tzimtzum is not literal understands this phrase to mean, that you “follow its customs” not because they have power, but because the Divine edict dictates that you spiritualize these customs and you elevate the city, reveal its inner G-dliness and transform it into a Divine home.

But upon deeper scrutiny, the former opinion, by giving credence to the modern, actually limits our ability to transform it. At best, you have to tailor faith to social standards, and attempt to lift the social norm to a higher, halachik model (“the Halachik man”). At worst you have to conform to these standards. But being within and bound by these rules, you can never master them. While the latter position, which recognizes the Divine as being above it all, paradoxically allows us the power to transform the material and integrate the two.

Four Opinions

More specifically, the two opinions about the Tzimtzum actually break down into four opinions:

1) The Tzimtzum is literal and also in the Divine Essence (the source of the light), not just in the Divine light.

2) Literal Tzimtzum but only in the Divine light.

3) Tzimtzum is not literal, but also in the Divine Luminary.

4) Tzimtzum is not literal, but only in the Divine light.

The four opinions differ in two areas. Whether the Tzimtzum: is 1) Literal or not literal, meaning whether the Divine is actually “removed” or only concealed from existence, 2) In the Divine Essence or only in the light, which means whether the “removal” or concealment is only on a conscious level (light), or also affects the Essence (unconscious).

In context of our present discussion on integration, these opinions can perhaps be interpreted in the following manner:

The first opinion is the most radical form of “disconnect” between the Divine and the secular. Both the Divine light and the Essence (the conscious and unconscious) are “removed” from our existence. Divine unity is achieved primarily through rejection of the mundane. Not only is it impossible to integrate Divine revelation in this universe, but even the Source is “removed” and can only be accessed through denying the material. [Psychologically speaking, this means that both the unconscious and the conscious cannot be accessed].

Opinion two recognizes that an element of the Divine Source manifests in our physical lives, but its does not appear in any revealed way; the conscious light is “removed” from existence. The Essence expresses itself on its’ own terms, not on ours. Due to its inferiority, we cannot fuse the personality of our existence with Divine manifestation. We experience Divine awareness not within our parameters, only outside of them. [In psychological terms, this would be like an unconscious experience, which does not express itself in any conscious fashion].

The third opinion (a modified version of the radicalism of opinion one) feels that the Divine Source remains “detached” from our existence, but not “removed” to the extent of the first opinion (which holds that the Tzimtzum is literal). The Divine Essence is present but concealed. Because the Essence is affected by the Tzimtzum (even if only being concealed), ultimately, it has some subtle (albeit distant) relationship with the creation, thus unable to fully transform the modern world. [Psychologically this means that the unconscious is concealed from existence].

The final opinion realizes that the Divine Essence is altogether unaffected by the Tzimtzum. It is beyond revelation and concealment, and its own essential way is very present in existence. At any moment, in every situation, a person can access G-d. Beyond that: Even the Divine light, the conscious experience of the Divine (and only its lowest level) is merely concealed (not “removed”), waiting to be revealed.

In other words, the integration between matter and spirit is possible for two reasons: 1) The Essence, unaffected by the creation of the universe and the Tzimtzum, empowers us to fuse the two. 2) This fusion is not just on an essential level, but also permeates our conscious experience, as we spiritualize our lives and reveal the hidden Divinity in the world. [1]

Psychologically, we have here a model of total fusion of all dimensions – the Divine unconscious and conscious joined together with the human unconscious and conscious.

The Tzimtzum concealment is just one component of a magnificent system that allows us the ability to achieve Divine Unity (Hashem Echod) in the universe. Beyond the Tzimtzum, the mystics fluently map out an elegant structure that teaches us how to marry heaven and earth; to integrate every aspect of our beings with higher purpose, ultimately with the Divine itself.

The Kabbalistic themes of reshimu and kav (the residue and thin ray of light following the tzimtzum), “lights” and “containers” (orot and keilim), the sefirot and the “worlds” – all make up the Cosmic Order, which helps us develop and expand our own material “containers” and fuse them with the “lights” of spirituality.

Practical Conclusions

In practical terms all this means that we can unite the two worlds of faith and modernity.

Each of has been charged and empowered to spiritualize our specific talents, professions and opportunities. We do this by utilizing them not just for personal gain but to help others and improve the world around us.

A spiritual experience does not need to be very dramatic. It can be generated through a simple act of kindness. A small effort today that goes a bit beyond yesterday’s effort.

That’s all it takes. Remember always that the duality of our universe is only in our perception. Underneath it all, concealed, lays enormous reservoirs of energy and light. Within it all lies the Essence, untouched, unaffected, by all the commotion.

The Essence – and all the revelations throughout history – is together with us, every moment, in every corner, in every experience of our lives!

All it takes is for us to open our eyes and see through the shrouds.

And act.


[1] On a personal level perhaps these two dimensions are expressed in the two aspects of human potential, discussed in Tanya: 1) The conscious power of self control; the natural ability of the reflective mind to control impulsive desires. 2) The unsconscious, “hidden love,” which lies at the heart and is the innate nature of every soul. Tanya is concerned with the dilemma how the human being can overcome his narcissistic drives and access the Divine. The Tanya explains that with the power of self control and with the unconscious “hidden love” the soul is able — both on a conscious and unconscious level — to connect with the Divine.

Since the Tzimtzum is not literal (not even in the light) it does not in any way 1) affect the unconscious, allowing us to always access the unconscious “hidden love,” nor does it 2) fundamentally alter the conscious (only in a form of concealment), allowing us the power of self control. Both human consciousness and unconsciousness, thus, remain essentially connected and can always fuse with the Divine.


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